Earlier this year we witnessed a curious phenomenon: herds of elephants descending from the mountains to Kunming.  Were they trying to tell us something? Healthy ecosystems are a pillar of almost everything we value in life. They are the foundation on which economies are built, and on which livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life depend. All human activity is embedded in nature’s ecosystems. And yet, nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates. According to the Dasgupta Review, from 1992 to 2014, the value of the stock of natural capital—such as air, soils, water, and even living organisms—has declined 40 percent per person, due to the persistent failure to manage these assets sustainably.

The Fifteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, next month in Kunming, comes at a critical time for the world’s ecosystems. It will focus on negotiations for formulating the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will outline actions that must be carried out by 2050 to ensure that human development takes place in a balanced relationship with nature. The resulting framework will be formally adopted by participating countries in May 2022.

For too long, the world’s focus has been on consumption and production at nature’s expense. Land use and urbanization, population dynamics, trade, industry, and governance models are pushing us ever closer to a tipping point where, very soon, nature will be unable to replenish itself. The encroachment of human activity on forests and natural habitats are believed to be behind the rise in zoonotic diseases transmitted from animals to humans and the risks these pose.

The recently released Sixth Assessment Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that unless there is a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Centigrade will be exceeded within a few decades.

Climate change is wreaking untold damage on ecosystems, even as their central role in keeping our societies healthy and increasingly prosperous—as well as safe from the impacts of global warming—has been taken for granted. As many of the processes that shape the natural world are silent and invisible, we do not see nature being given the same attention as other global issues, such as climate change.

We have to recognize how critical our natural capital is. On average, 30 percent of national wealth (GDP, exports, and government revenues) in Asia and the Pacific comes from natural capital, making ecosystems not only an environmental issue, but a developmental, economic, security, social, and human issue as well. Yet we do not see this reflected in our measurements for prosperity, growth, or development.

One reason is the lack of accounting that values the contribution of natural capital to our economies. Nature is undervalued and missing from the economic and financial decision-making process. It is vital that we integrate and price nature into development planning, policy making, financial reform, investment decisions, and knowledge generation processes.  

To address that imbalance—and to truly grasp what we have lost and are in danger of losing—we have to elevate natural capital alongside other forms of capital—manufactured, social, and human—that underpin sustainable development and economic growth.

Making this transformation has never been more important. Governments devising stimulus packages to rebuild out of the COVID-19 pandemic must prioritize actions that safeguard our natural capital. Decisions made now on how to stimulate growth and respond to the pandemic will greatly influence the future health, wellbeing, and stability of people and the planet.

The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will be vital for ushering in a new era in the valuation of nature, and to providing momentum to a nature-positive paradigm. There is reason to believe that Asia and the Pacific can and will make the new nature-positive investment paradigm work—mainly because it is fundamental to our existence. According to a study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, the most dramatic growth in awareness of nature and its importance to our future has occurred in Asia, particularly in emerging economies which see a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery as a new pathway for sustainable growth.

Many developing countries are already acting to conserve and revitalize natural assets. From 2000 to 2019, 21 countries in the region reported an increase in the amount of forested land as a percentage of total land, including the People’s Republic of China. This took place even as the number of people living in extreme poverty in the region fell by 846 million between 2002 and 2015, proving that we can balance our nature, growth, and poverty alleviation agendas.

Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that nature-based solutions can lift 1 billion people out of poverty and create an additional 80 million green jobs. Restoring 300 million hectares of degraded forest would generate $175 billion in economic activity annually. It may also preserve species and eventually lead to reverse migration of those stranded elephants back to their natural habitat.

In support of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is committed to working with a wide range of stakeholders to develop knowledge in nature-positive investment and recovery, and then circulate that knowledge among policymakers and planners at the national and local levels.

Along with other multilateral development institutions, ADB is working to develop the systems and tools that will enable us to more precisely value nature. This can be integrated into national accounting systems to understand and measure the contribution of nature as well as help decision makers identify where investment is needed to build up natural capital assets.

This will build upon work ADB piloted in partnership with the PRC which led to the adoption of gross ecosystem product, or GEP, as a nature service valuation index measuring the contribution of ecosystems to human welfare and socioeconomic development. It has been replicated in Colombia, with other countries expressing interest in doing the same; and mainstreamed in ADB operations involving eco-compensation.

The battle against climate change will be won or lost in Asia and the Pacific. With the right tools, knowledge, and resolve, our region has the most to gain from a return to a balanced and harmonious relationship with nature.